By Dara Schindelka
Jeffery Straker is more than just a dearly loved Canadian singer-songwriter, he’s a ray of
sunshine in a world of tension, power struggles, and negativity. His music hits listeners the way one would expect homemade pie (incidentally a favourite of his) to. One deep listening session fills you to the brim with warmth and comfort food straight to the soul. Straker’s latest album release, Just Before Sunrise, is a perfect example of how music, and the musician behind it, can truly make a positive impact in the world, even during a pandemic. Recorded in the year before Covid hit the globe, Straker chose to hold the release of the album until this spring, but his community of followers, that has steadily grown in spite of the shutdowns, are in for a treat that resonates so well in our times.
The music was created soon after the death of his mom and this experience greatly impacted his creativity. Songs flowed out of him and it became a therapy of sorts as he pondered the big questions and truths of life. And, as a folk singer that uses the keyboard as his instrument of choice, his piano became his palette with which to create his newest masterpieces. “Most of these [songs] were written with my old Heintzman from 1910. An upright that was given to me as a gift by a fan, which is lovely. She’s in Regina and reached out to me 5 years ago and strangely, I was looking for a piano, and specifically looking for a Heintzman upright. It was weird and amazing and I when I went to her house to play it and knew this was it!” This beloved piano has become a centrepiece in the many livestreams and social media videos that Jeff posts from his home and followers have come to love it. In fact, the piano is part of Straker’s collective community in a way. “During the series of live-streams I was doing earlier in the pandemic, for some reason, I mentioned how I loved the piano and the tone of the piano, and I said to the listeners we should name this piano. I asked them to type suggestions in the comments. I do these concerts on my phone so I can’t see the comments, so when I stopped the livestream and looked, there were over 500 name suggestions! This was beyond what I expected and, in a way quite ridiculous but, as my word, I read through all the suggestions. They ran the gamut from Elizabeth and Betty to a woman in Ontario who made a strong case that I must name it after her mother who had passed on. It was all very fascinating, but then I had to choose, and someone suggested Moira Rose. I’m such a Schitt’s Creek fan, I mean I’ve binged watched it twice, and I was struck with that name. This old Heintzman is certainly quirky. It does its own thing. It is almost unapologetic and yet so great in its own way.”
The name stuck and Straker announced that he would share the Heinzman’s new name at the end of the next show the following month. “At the end of the next livestream I played Joni Mitchell’s 'Both Sides Now', and love the song so much I totally got lost in it.” As soon as it was done Straker went offline and soon he had an outcry, “I stopped the livestream without announcing the name, and people went berserk! They started phoning me and emailing me and texting me and Facebooking me, and saying I had to tell them the name!” A quick second video was in order and the community of listeners were thrilled. This is the kind of magic that Jeffery weaves into his identity. Not only does he make music, he can have upwards to a thousand listeners at one time watching him and feeling totally connected to him in a way that few online musicians can recreate. The result has been humbling for Straker. “I don’t think I understood the kind of community that was gathered around the music I created. I had no idea up until the pandemic. I was busy playing my songs and was very happy people were listening but not understanding the dimensions of it. When everyone got moved online and more active in their online music consumption, I really found out [the depth of] their goodness. It became hugely humbling and I felt literal love when all of a sudden, as a touring musician who makes 85% of his income from touring around playing live music like a modern-day troubadour, I couldn’t do that. I started livestreaming and people started giving me pay-pal and e-transfers and they literally saved me financially. I was able to pay my bills, I was able to buy food. It went beyond people saying thank you for the songs. They literally donated and saved me. That all happened because of the music. When you try to wrap your mind around it, it’s really amazing.
The songs on this album were almost all created on this beloved piano. Words and lyrics flowed out, often simultaneously but some took time to craft he explains, ”'Play That Song Again' had one line come to me only a week or so after mom died, and though I didn’t use it, the patter of the phrase led to the waltz feel and rhythm. That was very much a music first creation for me. Other ones, like 'Ready to be Brave', were written on the piano, but in recording it, decided I didn’t want much piano accompanying it. The writing process for that song took 6 months, and it wasn’t working, and then I finally found a groove. I found a simple chord progression. I changed the time signature. I changed the keys. I changed it from major to minor. It was painful but it was funny, and the thing was, all the words were written before I sat at the piano! But mostly, I would say I had some words, and a good idea where this would go, and did a simultaneous words and music thing.”
Two of the songs on the album were co-written with another Canadian singer-songwriter, Royal Wood. As Straker shares, “The songs 'Light a Fire' and 'Believer' were written in Toronto’s Liberty Village with Royal. They were created in his condo on his piano, a beautiful piano, an upright Yamaha. I played the Yamaha and he played guitar, so we bounced things back and forth, knowing that we wanted them to both singer-songwriter songs that could also be solo songs.” The release of the album coincides with a cross country virtual tour which Straker is looking forward to. “The virtual tour has 6 dates. The shows have “pick your price” ticketing so there’s three options. And that gives choice. I am also so pleased that we have partnered with venues and presenters across the country. They are promoting it to their listeners, but I am also bringing my listeners to them, so it helps build and maintain communities for both of us. All the venues are places I’ve performed, from the National Arts Centre to the Maritimes where 3 house concert venues have gone together to virtually host me. The collective in the Maritimes has 2 house concert venues in New Brunswick and 1 in Nova Scotia and they’re presenting across the eastern provinces. This is fabulous as it is all from the years of driving across the country and those pre-pandemic connections.”
Following the virtual tour, Straker has a 41 date backyard tour as well. “The backyard concerts are what I did last summer as well. I did 36 backyard pandemic concerts in 2020 so I started reaching out in this winter and I’ve booked 41 at this point. It’s not the only thing I can do. I am doing it because I love it! I am looking forward to it.” So are his many followers too. 2021 brings with it the hope that this pandemic will be under control. Optimism is beginning to peak its head out from the darkness. And, along with that optimism, you will find this wonderful troubadour singing his songs and sharing his music to a world looking for exactly his style musical medicine.
Photos courtesy Ali Lauren